Sunday, 26 August, 2007

The Shrinking Space For Dissent

A couple of weeks back, I received an invitation to hear writer Taslima Nasreen speak at Allahabad University . However, in the aftermath of the hooliganism following her book release at Hyderabad Press club, the University Administraion issued a statement canceling the speaking engagement, on grounds of maintaining peace on campus. Once again, the right wing fundamentalist faction seemed to have won. Only this time it was muslim MLAs belonging to the Majlis-e-Ittihadul Muslimeen (MIM). But the question remains, the MIM won at what? The Hyderabad incident accorded yet another victory to Taslima in the worlds’ eyes and plummeted the global perception of muslims as an intolerant, violent, and reactionary community a notch or two lower than it already is.

I hang my head in shame because Indian and South Asian muslims are resigned to accepting the leadership of men like the Owaisis. Where is the alternative, enlightened, egalitarian leadership for muslims? I don’t see much outrage or mass-scale protest at the daily abuse of basic rights of muslim women from these same men who are ready to behead Taslima because she is rightly critical of patriarchal practices among muslims.

We have to wonder who has the welfare of the muslim community in mind? Especially the upliftment of muslim women. If the muslim leaders cared about how muslim women’s rights are being trampled upon, why aren’t they protesting against the treatment meted out to Muslim women by Muslim men? Why aren’t they staging protests for the scores of muslim women victims of domestic violence and women whose triple Talaqs are pronounced over the phone and by SMS? Why aren’t they flinging furniture and abuses at maulvis who pronounce ludicrous fatwas, e.g. in the Imrana case in Uttar Pradesh, where Imrana was decalared the wife of her rapist father-in-law and ordered to leave her husband? Or at the unprecedented increase in the totally unIslamic practice of dowry in the muslim community? Or at the powerlessness of muslim women to choose their spouses or lay down their right to divorce in their nikahnama? Or at the virtual lack of inheritance rights for muslim girls? These rights have been granted to muslim women by Islam but nowhere in the Muslim world have then been fully implemented to ensure Muslim women gender equity.

Can we muslims please took a hard, honest look at ourselves? Can we come out of our collective silence so that we can silence the likes of Owaisi? It’s about time we stopped being psychologically and emotionally manipulated by self-proclaimed protectors of Islam. It’s about time we stopped getting brainwashed into thinking that the gravest threat to our religion is a book called Satanic Verses, or a Danish cartoon lampooning the prophet, or a woman writer who is allegedly defaming Islam. The real threat to Islam’s survival in the modern world is the inability of muslims to self-reflect, and to promote an open-minded and enlightened dialogue on how to establish ideal muslim communities based on the principles of justice, equality, and truth.

It’s tough to do the work of uplifting a community out of poverty and ignorance, but so much easier and lucrative to use sensational tactics to divert attention from the community’s real issues. It’s politically expedient to convince a community that what one woman has to say about the discrimination muslim women face in the muslim community is threatening the imminent demise of the religion. It’s easy to pontificate on how muslim women need to protect themselves from the immorality of women like Taslima but so difficult to acknowledge how impoverished muslim women are due to gender-based discrimination, very often from muslim men. Discrimination which manifests as lack of education, employment, inheritance rights, decision-making powers, adequate health care etc. It takes time, patience, vision and a fundamental belief in justice to establish more schools, more hospitals, more job training programmes for a community’s women. But it only takes a few hours and a team of hired goondas to storm a public gathering and put an allegedly immoral woman in her place. And you get so much attention in the media for doing so little!

Where are the modern muslim intellectual’s voices in the media? I need to hear them more. The muslim community has to find the courage to speak its mind. If we don’t, we leave the field wide open for the likes of Owaisi and his team to propagate their version of politicized Islam for their own political power gains. But at the same time, the media too, has to create and nurture the space for dissenting muslim voices. I’m so tired of watching and reading the demeaning portrayal of muslim men as terrorists and muslim women as the most oppressed bunch of humans in the world. But how can we hope to enlarge the circle of dissent when alternative muslim voices are muffled by the kind of frenzied attention the media pays to the antics of Owaisi and his cabal?

Dissent is an unsafe practice. Without dissent there can be no hope of nurturing a democracy or challenging the socio-cultural status quo. There’s a depressing silence and apathy within the muslim community on muslim women’s issues. So as a muslim woman if I insist that Taslima is right on some issues like Pardah (See her personal webpage at to read more about her views) and she has the right to speak her mind, then I’m insulting Islam. If I say that those who oppose her also have the right to protest but must do so respectfully, within the bounds of decency, as it should be done in a secular democracry, then too, I run the risk of pandering to the majority view and demonizing muslims. Many muslims may not agree with some or all of Taslima’s views, but does that mean we take away her right to speak?

Let’s turn to history for some valuable lessons in tolerance and acceptance of religio-cultural diversity. Akbar’s great grandson, Dara Shikoh, in the 17th century was the first to translate the Upanishads into Persian. It was Dara’s work, which when translated from Persian into Latin, in early 19th century, introduced Hindu mysticism for the first time to the Europeans. Dara would have made an ideal king but he was murdered by his younger brother, Aurangzeb, who coveted the throne himself. Besides, Dara would have been too much of a religious radical, and therefore, a threat to the established religious orthodoxy of both the muslims and the Hindus. Much before that, the 10th century sufi saint, Mansur Hallaj was put to death by the vizier of his land for claiming “ana’l Haqq” or “I’m the absolute Truth” which later became distorted to “I’m God”. Hallaj was ostensibly punished for committing the sin of shirk but in reality, he too, was a threat to the prevailing orthodoxy of the Iraqi rulers of his time. Hallaj propagated dissent, by claiming that the citizens had a right to a more just government. And dissent always runs the risk of being squashed: Hallaj’s limbs were cut off and he was put on the gallows. But the world is richer today due to the cultural influence of courageous rebels like Dara Shikoh and mystics like Hallaj.

Islam gained acceptance in the subcontinent not due to forced conversions at the point of the sword but largely due to the arduous work of sufis whose gentleness, modesty and generosity of spirit won people over. Annemarie Schimmel, in her magnificent treatise on Sufism, “The Mystical Dimensions of Islam”, comments on the political motivations behind Hallaj’s assassination:

“The idea of converting the hearts of all muslims and teaching them the secret of personal sanctification and not just blind acceptance would certainly have been dangerous for a society whose religious and political leaders lived in a state of

stagnation with neither the strength nor the intention to revitalize the Muslim community.” (p.68)

Ms Schimmel, passed away some years ago, but she might have been disappointed, or perhaps not, to learn that the morally bankrupt muslim leaders of the subcontinent are as devoid of motivation and strength to revitalize their communities as they were in 10th century Iraq . The onus now rests ever more heavily on ordinary muslims to shed the mantle of blind acceptance, of the fatwas and dogmas enshrouding their vision.

Reference: Schimmel, Annemarie (2007): The Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Available from Yoda Press, Delhi , India .

By Nighat Gandhi
(Nighat Gandhi is a writer and a mental health counsellor.)

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